Child abuse is often perceived as a rare and horrific exception that only happens to other people. We hear of it on the news sometimes, can't believe such monsters exist in our society, and want them castrated and executed. However, this view isn't very realistic. Child abuse comes in various forms and degrees, and most of it is done by the child's immediate family. 73% of child abuse fatalities are caused by neglect; mothers are involved in 70% of cases. Seeing child abuse as a rare exception rather than an unfortunate but common occurrence results in dismissing the issue as "not bad enough," when we're faced with it. Abusive parents continue harming their kids because they don't identify themselves as the TV monsters and don't realize that what they are doing also constitutes child abuse. Relatives, neighbors, teachers, etc aren't interfering because they don't want to label the parent as a child abuser because s/he didn't mean it. Their children feel the same way when they grow up, and as a result aren't getting the support they need to recover from the trauma and repair the damage it caused. Many abusive parents aren't monsters and weren't trying to hurt their child deliberately, so aside from the saint/monster classification it's important to recognize the "they screwed up" option as well.
Child abuse comes in a few forms, but the overall idea is that an adult causes harm to a child, through action or through inaction. Physical abuse means any act of physical violence: hitting, kicking, punching, shoving, slapping, etc. Sexual abuse means involving or exposing a child to any sexual activities. Emotional (or psychological) abuse means harming a child on the emotional level: yelling, shaming, humiliating, threatening, etc. Neglect means failure to provide adequate care. For example, a mother left her child in a locked car at a Walmart parking lot. The kid got heat stroke, police broke the windows, got him out of the car, social services took custody, the mother is facing child abuse/endangerment charges, might end up in prison for a while. Of course she wasn't deliberately trying to give her son a heat stroke, and it's not her fault it was so hot that day. Yet it was her responsibility to check the weather, take a parenting class, google if it's safe to leave children his age in locked cars, contact CPS if she felt unable to care for him, or do whatever else it would take to ensure his safety. Because it's not her son's problem, to figure these things out for her. It's the parent's job, to ensure that their child is safe, fed, clothed, healthy, happy, and getting the education and guidance s/he needs to grow up into a well-adjusted individual. Failure to do so constitutes child abuse.
Whether the parents meant to hurt you or not, abuse causes serious psychological trauma. When someone you love and depend on for life is hurting you and rationalizes it with bizarre statements, like that it's your own fault or that it's done for your own good - that's terribly confusing even for an adult. A child is unable to sort through this mess because s/he has less experience, less cognitive skills, and less legal options. They don't know whom to trust, aren't sure if they are being lied to or really are missing the point, and tend to blame themselves for every aspect of the experience. For provoking abuse, for being undeserving of better treatment, for being too stupid to understand how is it for their own good, for not loving their abuser enough to warm their heart, for disrespecting their elders by thinking badly of them, for being ungrateful by complaining about abuse instead of thanking for having a roof over their head, etc. A child cannot sort through all these mixed messages, doesn't understand what's happening to them, and ends up feeling overwhelmed, confused, scared, and hopeless about future. They have trouble trusting people after the experience, suffer from nightmares, struggle with school. This makes the issue snowball: nightmares are interpreted as punishment from God for being a bad child, school problems are interpreted as proof that it's really me, not my parents, because teachers don't like me either, etc. The child grows up with a very inaccurate perception of the world and their place in it, and correcting these core beliefs takes decades of therapy.
It's good when the problem is addressed as early as possible, when the child has someone who loves them, someone they trust, someone who can help them make sense of what happened and protect them from further trauma. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case - majority of child abuse is perpetrated by the immediate family, and even if the child gets removed and sent to foster care - building trust with foster parents takes time. The more time passes, the harder it is to bring up the topic, something that happened years ago but still bothers you, especially if you aren't sure what it was and if you'll be in trouble for it. The kids grow older, and the unresolved conflict of the trauma can manifest as defiant behavior, poor social adjustment (like bullying or getting bullied), depression, eating disorders, self-injury, or violence towards peers, younger children, or animals.
If there's still no help for the trauma aftermath, these teens are likely to grow into adults with PTSD, depression, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, addictions, etc. However, having been abused as a child doesn't mean that your life is hopelessly ruined and you're doomed to spend the rest of your life suffering the consequences of your parents' actions. The trauma has happened and will always be a part of who you are, but you can address and resolve it, so that it won't hinder your happiness and quality of life anymore. See our help page for a directory of therapists in your area, and feel free to join us here at Fort - all of us have been abused, we get what it's like, and are supporting each other in rebuilding our lives after the trauma.
If you suspect a child is being abused, please remember that a child cannot get help for themselves. Do the right thing, contact authorities. Read more about reporting suspected abuse.
If you feel you might hurt a child, please know that there's help available. Reach out for it, protect the child and avoid criminal charges yourself. See the links below or browse our list of hotlines and other helpful organizations.
If you're already hurting a child - please stop now. It would make a tremendous difference to any abuse survivor if the person who was abusing them stopped and said, "I shouldn't be doing this to you, it's wrong," and left, even without an apology.
You know it's wrong. Have the guts to say so.
~ Francois de La Rochefoucauld
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